Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: Chessman: And His Nine Lives On Death Row By Terrance W. Cooney

And His Nine Lives On Death Row
By Terrance W. Cooney

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Outskirts Press (August 23, 2012)
  • Purchase Link: Amazon

Book Description

On May 2, 1960, on its ninth attempt, the State of California finally executed Caryl Chessman. Terrence W. Cooney's Chessman, told in the liberating form of a factually-informed novel, introduces the reader to all the players in a long odyssey that brought such infamy to the state and country. From Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown to Chessman himself and to the landscape of a fast-changing California, Cooney anchors a chapter of the state's history that for too long has meandered a-sea. Many of the facts of this hysteria-inducing ordeal were gleaned from archival histories, both oral and written. And while much of he dialogue is imagined, the times, attendees, and days of the meetings that hosted such conversations are not. 

In 1956, the author was appointed by the California Supreme Court to serve as counsel representing a defendant who had pleaded guilty to two murders. It was, Cooney knew from the start, a death penalty case. Cooney argued that the arbitrary imposition of the punishment violated the 1791 Eighth Amendment of the Constitution's Bill of Rights against "Cruel and Unusual Punishment." His argument was rejected. Subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted that position in 1972 when it so ruled that the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. 

Four years later, still unable to shake the case, Cooney had become engrossed by the Caryl Chessman affair that had started to become deadline news throughout California and beyond. In 1960, Cooney produced the documentary: Justice and Caryl Chessman. The film was shown in more than 1,500 movie houses throughout the United States alone, and in countless theatres worldwide. During the filming of the documentary, Cooney met Chessman who was, at the time, the most famous resident of San Quentin's death row. In the process, Cooney also met and conversed with Chessman's attorneys, prosecutors, investigators and jailers. 

My Review

Chessman: And His Nine Lives On Death Row follows San Quentin inmate, Caryl Chessman, during the last few months of his life on death row. Author and attorney, Terrance W. Cooney has compiled facts, history of the case, and the recollections of those involved, including Chessman. This novel isn’t just about Caryl Chessman receiving the death penalty despite never committing a homicide, but it also sheds light the judicial system and capital punishment.

Chessman: And His Nine Lives On Death Row is a great read and an eye-opener to some of the behind-the-scene workings of the California court and prison system during the 1950s. I would imagine that present day court cases face similar issues. While the book specifically follows the case of published author, Caryl Chessman, readers catch a glimpse of the mentality behind the decision-making in this infamous case.

It was frustrating to jump through the hoops along with Chessman’s lawyers as they attempt to beat the clock to save him from the gas chamber, or at the very least, extend his life. While Chessman was not an innocent man, there seemed to be insufficient evidence that he was guilty of the crimes that ultimately led to his death sentence. Cooney’s book is an emotional roller coaster ride that is abundant in information and intensity. 

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